- An Interview with John Bowman
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John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. He is the author of De Valera and the Ulster Question, 1917–73 (Oxford University Press, 1982), which won the Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for its contribution to North-South understanding. He has presented current-affairs, historical, and election-results programs on RTÉ radio and television since the 1960s. He has interviewed every taoiseach since Seán Le-mass and has reported on Irish general elections since the 1960s. He anchored the radio coverage in the three elections of 1981–82, and since 1987 he has copresented the television coverage. He was a presenter on Today Tonight in the 1980s and from 1988 to 2009 chaired the weekly political-debate show Questions and Answers, the second longest-running program in RTÉ television’s history. He is the author of Window and Mirror: RTÉ Television, 1961–2011 (Collins Press, 2011). Bowman has written and presented major television documentaries on John Charles McQuaid, Todd Andrews, T. K. Whitaker, Seamus Mallon, the history of RTÉ television, and Ireland’s participation in the First World War. He was elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College Dublin in 2009 and awarded an honorary doctorate by University College Dublin in 2010.
Rob Savage interviewed John Bowman in March 2015.
Perhaps you might start by explaining how you became interested in current affairs and broadcasting?
I think I was always interested in the history of newspapers and the media. I’m recalling the library books I borrowed when I was a schoolboy. I’m not certain where that interest came from—although as a family we listened to a lot of radio. The Sunday night play, music recitals, the opera … , although I couldn’t ever understand Norris Davidson’s long-winded explanations of the plots! But I was a [End Page 217] moderately good baritone as a schoolboy, and I had leading parts in many Gilbert and Sullivan operas. I played Bunthorne in Patience, and I played the title role in The Mikado. So perhaps there was a performing gene at work as well, and that might have attracted me to broadcasting.
I recall—although we had no television reception in Dublin at the time—the lengthy debates about the end of the BBC monopoly on television and the debate about whether commercial television should be introduced in Britain. And I do recall the warning from Lord Reith, who had been the architect of BBC radio, when he told the House of Lords that somebody had introduced “dog racing into England and somebody had introduced small pox, bubonic plague, and the Black Death.” And that somebody was now minded to introduce “sponsored broadcasting” into Britain.
Did a degree in history and your research on de Valera play a part in your decision to pursue a career in reporting on contemporary politics?
Probably not directly. Because while I was still a student, I had begun freelancing as a broadcaster and had achieved some success. So I was earning money and had no intention of applying for a staff job that might inhibit my chance of pursuing research. That was a period when there were no grants in the social sciences. So I was pursuing my de Valera research and enjoying it, and the broadcasting was subsidizing it. I was already earning a moderate living, and I liked the freedom of working out my own schedule.
I was doing all of this under Basil Chubb, who was professor of political science in Trinity. I consider the thesis and the book that followed, De Valera and the Ulster Question, 1917–73, to be a work of history, although it borrows from political science and quite a bit from political geography. At that time the Freeman Library in Trinity—based on the library of Trinity’s great geographer T. W. Freeman—had a wonderful space in the Museum Building with a Victorian spiral staircase and a gallery. The gallery was a cul-de-sac, and indeed the whole small...